Rev. Kortering is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Grandville, Michigan.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” 

Psalm 23:4

The valley of the shadow of death!

What familiar language.

It deals with the most critical time for shepherd and sheep, the time when the shepherd takes the flock from the safe confines of the home range, the farmstead, and moves them to the higher summer range. There is only one way to get there, and that is through the valley.

A good shepherd will take his flock on this course. It is the gentle approach. His sheep cannot scale the canyon walls or climb the steep mountain grade. No, the shepherd must follow the steady, upward grade that takes him through the valley. At the same time, the valley will provide the necessities for the sheep. There the water cascades downward as the winter snows melt higher up. There the tender blades of grass grow and afford the sheep necessary grazing for their upward trek.

But the valley is fraught with dangers and many hazards as well. It is aptly called, “the valley of the shadow of death.”

The threat of storms is intensified in the canyons and river bottoms. A sudden thunder storm can cause the gently flowing brook to turn into a raging river that could easily drown the sheep. Higher up, the rain may well turn into snow or sleet and the sheep could be threatened by chill and pneumonia. One misplaced rock can turn into a roaring missile of death. In this valley, the shepherd must contend with snakes, coyotes, wolves, and other predators which take advantage of rocky narrow confines. The thorns can impale a sheep and cause infection or even immobilize it. The cliffs and sudden drops can send a sheep rolling helplessly down to its death.

The Holy Spirit led the Psalmist David to see a close analogy between such an experience of the shepherd and the saints’ pilgrimage. There are moments when we are secure in the home range (we lie down in green pastures and drink beside still waters).

There are also moments when we reach the upper summer range and enjoy a table set before us in the presence of enemies and are anointed with oil with a cup that runs over. In a sense, the direction of our spiritual life is always upward. We reach heavenward to enjoy sweet communion with our God. God in His infinite wisdom knows that the only way to reach this is through the valley of the shadow of death.

Yes, we have to contend with the mountain of death that stands between God and us. Death is the penalty for sin. It obscures the light of Jehovah that shines so brilliantly beyond. The gospel for us is to know that it is a shadow of death. A shadow is not the real thing. It takes on the character of death, but lacks the substance. How can this be? The answer is that Jesus is our Good Shepherd, who laid down His life for the sheep. He came to this side of the mountain and took the burden of Gods wrath against our sins. He contended with death in all its horrible reality. A moment’s contemplation of the cross will remind us of this. In the awful darkness He cried, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me.” That’s death in its terrible reality. Jesus took away our death as judgment and satisfied God’s demands, so that now it is for us a shadow.

As we pass through the valley of this shadow of death, we encounter many evils. Some of us know the sorrow of death that has taken away loved ones. Life is not the same; the place is so empty. Often times we experience pain, disease, injury to our bodies. There are the moments when loved ones fail us, a husband leaves his wife or wife leaves her husband. Children turn their backs on parents. Sin breaks our homes and our hearts. The valley is marked by the tears of those who forsake Jesus Christ, become backsliders, sometimes even enemies of the truth. The love of many waxes cold. Even the events of the nations of the world seem threatening to our own safety as people of God.

How sweet the song of the shepherd, “Yea, though Iwalk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” The valley will not swallow us up. We walk through it unto the higher ground of sunshine and sweet fellowship with God.

The Lord is my shepherd!

We do well to remind ourselves that the shepherd makes all the difference in the critical transition through the valley. The true mettle and loyalty of the shepherd are tested in the valley. All the skill he ever developed will be called into action as he leads his flock through the valley.

David sang from his own experience and focused his eye of faith upon Jesus. Jehovah is my shepherd! He is the Creator of the heavens and earth, the Lord of the universe. He is abundantly able to provide all our needs through this valley. Even more, He is the one Who has planned each valley in our lives. He knows what valleys are important for our spiritual good as He draws us closer to Him in the higher ground. He has sealed His love to us in Jesus Christ. He has exalted Him to His own right hand and has given to Jesus all authority over heaven and earth. Even princes and rulers are subject to His control. As the Good Shepherd He calls us by name, we hear His voice and we follow Him.

Jesus uses human agency to shepherdize. In the sphere of the home, parents are the shepherds of the family. In the school the parents place teachers to do this on their behalf. In the sphere of the nations, presidents and rulers are Christ’s ministers (shepherds) to watch over Christ’s sheep. In the church, Christ calls pastors, elders, and deacons to do this work. In a sense, all of us are called to be shepherds over one another within the fold of Christ.

Always the real Shepherd is Jehovah, Who leads us through Jesus.

The rod and the staff of the shepherd provide comfort.

The staff is the best known of the two. Every picture of a shepherd and sheep includes the staff, the long stick with a crook on the end. The shepherd chose a proper branch from a certain tree and soaked the end and bent it to the shape of a crook. The staff was used to keep the flock together. At times the newborn lambs became separated from their mothers, and the shepherd could not touch it with his hand for then the mother would reject it. Rather he carried it with the staff. The staff was used to nudge the leader sheep through a difficult area so that the rest would follow. The crook was used to reach out into the waters to rescue a drowning sheep or lift one out of the ravine into which it had fallen.

The rod was fashioned out of a sapling. The shepherd would dig down to get the heavy knob that formed just where the roots separated from the trunk. Carefully he would whittle it to fit his hand and be properly balanced.

The rod was used for protection. We think of Moses who had his shepherd’s rod which God used as a symbol of His own power to shepherdize Israel. The rod was used for counting the sheep. In a narrow place in the valley, the shepherd would stand and force the sheep to pass under the rod to be counted and inspected. He would take the rod and separate the wool to look for disease or for any signs of injury. This became known as passing under the rod (see Ezekiel 20:37). If one of the sheep began to wander in the distance, he would skillfully throw his rod at the sheep and spook it so that it would stay in the fold. Other times the rod became the weapon to drive off or kill the predator that threatened.

What a lesson this contains for us.

What is the rod and staff? It can be only one thing, the Word of God. God has given to us His Word. The tools of shepherdizing are not the philosophies of men; but God has given to us, the church of Jesus Christ, the infallible Word, authoritative for doctrine and life.

The Word keeps the flock. together. Nothing does that more effectively in the church than the preaching of the gospel. The Word keeps the family together when father and mother read and apply the Word of God to themselves and the children. The Word guides our feet into the paths of truth in the midst of the dangers of this world. We need the Word to comfort us in our sorrows, to encourage us in our distress, to warn us when we stray. It is the staff in the hand of the Good Shepherd.

The same Word is the rod of inspection. So it is for the elders of the church at family visiting, for the deacons when they seek to determine proper objects of mercy, for the pastor when the rightly divides and applies the preaching. The Word warns us of sin and expounds the gospel truth which keeps the enemies away.

No wonder the Psalmist says, thy rod and staff they comfort me.

The proper use of the Word by Christ and His undershepherds guides the sheep safely through the valley of the shadow of death.

There is only one way that we will admit this.

That we are sheep. If we think we are more than sheep, we will imagine that we can do it alone, without the help of others. Sheep admit they need a shepherd. The nature of sheep is to wander. They are not gregarious; they are independent and easily wander off. Sheep are helpless animals. They are hard to handle. There are the cranky ewes, the tough rams, the frisky Iambs.

Without a faithful shepherd with proper tools we would never make it safely through the valley.

We have the Good Shepherd with the Rod and Staff.

What a comfort, what peace of mind in the midst of difficulties.

Dear reader, we shall pass through the valley to the summit of glory.

Ultimately, that is heaven itself. What a comfort!